Two years ago, I wrote about the thousands of tactical or battlefield nuclear warheads left over from the Cold War.
Today, I can confidently report: they are still out there, uncounted and unseen. There has been almost no progress toward bringing these weapons into the open, or under an arms control treaty.
Both the United States and Russia have made dramatic reductions since the visionary, unilateral initiatives of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the autumn of 1991, in which they pulled back voluntarily and without a treaty as the great confrontation of the Cold War ebbed. But the story didn't end there.
Today, the United States, which once had 7,300 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, retains about 200 B-61 gravity bombs in five NATO nations. (And there are about 300 non-deployed bombs in the United States, as well as 260 cruise missile warheads which are being phased out.) Russia now has some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons of various kinds assigned to delivery vehicles, with more awaiting dismantlement. The estimates of Russian stockpiles have been highly uncertain in the two decades since the Soviet collapse.
The fate of these weapons will be in the spotlight again at the NATO summit in Chicago May 20-21, which is expected to approve a new Deterrence and Defense Posture Review. Don't look for a dramatic shift from the status-quo; the allies want to hold onto the nuclear weapons, for now, as a political symbol of the American nuclear umbrella, and perhaps as a chip to be traded in future negotiations. And Russia, too, sees these warheads as a useful bulwark against NATO's edge in conventional or non-nuclear forces (a complete turnabout from the Cold War when it was the West that saw nuclear battlefield weapons as a way to stop a Soviet conventional invasion.)
Tactical nuclear weapons have no significant military utility in these times. A target could be just as easily put in the crosshairs of a highly-precise strategic weapon.
If NATO policy is stuck, then at least the summit should consider a very good suggestion from Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who has just completed a comprehensive look at tactical nuclear weapons, a report [pdf] chock-a-block with data and valuable insights. Kristensen, who is co-author with Robert S. Norris of the authoritative "Nuclear Notebook" column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, suggests we create some transparency as a first step to break the tactical nuclear weapons impasse.
"Russia, the United States and NATO do not disclose how many non-strategic nuclear weapons they have or where they are deployed" he writes. "As a result, uncertainty and rumors fuel a debate full of half-truths, exaggerations and worst-case assumptions."
Kristensen points out that keeping the details of tactical nuclear weapons secret is in contrast to the approach taken with operational, long-range strategic weapons, which are accounted for in the New Start treaty data. Also, in 2010, the Obama administration disclosed the size and history of the total nuclear weapons stockpile. Why not do the same with the tactical warheads? In 2011, a group of NATO nations proposed just that: exchanging data between the United States, NATO and Russia on numbers, locations, operational status, command arrangements and warhead storage security. But so far it has not been done.
"The stalemate in non-strategic nuclear weapons cries out for political leadership and bold initiatives. It is important that Russia and the United States take steps to drastically increase transparency. This can be done on a unilateral basis and should include overall numbers, locations, and delivery systems. It should also include verification measures to confirm data that is provided. Increasing transparency is essential because uncertainty creates mistrust, rumors, and worst-case planning.
"Most of what is assumed about Russian non-strategic nuclear capabilities still comes from literature published during the Cold War and in the first years after the demise of the Soviet Union. Since then, the U.S. intelligence community has largely stopped publishing estimates about Russian nuclear capabilities, and Russia has not offered any insight.
To that end, it is important that possible agreements on increased transparency of non-strategic nuclear weapons not be confined to confidential exchanges of information between governments but also benefit the international community."
Operation Upshot-Knothole, May 25, 1953, via Wikimedia Commons
On February 9, 1988, President Reagan and his top aides met in the White House Situation Room to look at prospects for a strategic arms control treaty with the Soviet Union during Reagan's last year in office. Although Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had come close to a deal on deep cuts at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, they had yet to nail down an agreement.
Reagan had high hopes for a Moscow summit in the spring. He told his advisors to work hard toward a possible arms control treaty, if a satisfactory one could be hammered out. "We should all have our work shoes on," he insisted.
A few months later, on May 23, Reagan and his advisors met again in the Situation Room. At this point, the summit was a week away, but Reagan's advisors were at odds over missile defense. Exasperated, Secretary of State George Shultz declared at one point:
You know, this discussion highlights the fact that we can't get straight internally what we want. How can we possibly negotiate with the Soviets when we can't even articulate to each other what our position is in a meeting like this?
Once in Moscow, Reagan enjoyed an upbeat summit, but did not get a strategic arms treaty, and he left office without it. The following year, the new president, George H. W. Bush, was not in a hurry either. He started his term with a misguided "pause" in dealings with Moscow. Gorbachev was frustrated, and his national security advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, called 1989 "the lost year." (The treaty wasn't signed until 1991, in the final months before the Soviet collapse.)
Why does this matter? Experience shows that "lost years" are all too common nuclear arms control negotiations. The best results come in those rare moments when national interests align and leaders summon the willpower to make compromises. By that yardstick, it looks like 2012 will be another "lost year." Presidential elections in the United States and Russia mean that leaders in both countries--which hold the lion's share of nuclear weapons in the world--will be preoccupied and cautious.
There's a strange complacency about nuclear weapons. For all their destructive power, we tend to forget about them. The last atomic bomb to be used in combat was more than 60 years ago (although thousands were blown up in tests during the Cold War.) Many people ask: why worry now? Didn't Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev just sign a strategic arms treaty? Yes, they did, bringing the total operational strategic warheads down to 1,550 on each side. But thousands of other nuclear warheads in the United States and Russian Federation--at least 5,000, probably more, both tactical and strategic--remain outside the existing arms control treaties. It would make sense to corral them: get a precise fix on how many are out there, decide whether any must be retained for security, and put the rest on the conveyor belt to oblivion.
But negotiations require compromise, and that's difficult during political campaigns. Vladimir Putin has been weakened by the recent protests in Moscow. Although he is still expected to win the March presidential election, it may not be the best time for making deals with the United States. Likewise, Obama and the Republicans will be in a constant struggle over the next 10 months, hardly a good moment for bargaining with Moscow. In the American campaign, neither Republicans nor Democrats are expected to make nuclear arms control an issue this year; it hasn't cropped up once in the recent Republican debates.
So the next window for negotiations is 2013, at the earliest.
The lost year should be spent mapping out new approaches to eliminating the huge overhang of nuclear weapons from the Cold War, no matter who become the next leaders of Russia and the United States. Already, some policy discussions about the next phase are percolating in both capitals. The backlog of sticky problems between the two powers is growing ever larger, not to mention the nonproliferation challenges elsewhere.
Time to get the work shoes on.
To read the declassified minutes of the 1988 Reagan meetings, go to www.thereaganfiles.com and see the section on National Security Planning Group meetings. The two sessions were No. 176 and No. 190.
Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images
When we think of nuclear warheads, we imagine those cone-shaped, threatening weapons perched atop missiles, ready to be launched, or bombs loaded aboard airplanes. These are known as operationally-deployed strategic weapons. But there are other strategic nuclear warheads that are not deployed, sitting in storage in both the United States and Russia. In fact, each country has several thousand of them. They are not covered by any treaty, and not checked by verification. There is no public accounting of the exact numbers.
Here’s a chance for President Barack Obama to take a lasting step toward his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It’s time for both countries to get rid of these excess warheads.
The U.S. warheads were put in a reserve, or “hedge,” in 1994. This was only about three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not long after Boris Yeltsin had prevailed in a violent confrontation with hardliners in parliament. William Perry, then the defense secretary, said on Sept. 20, 1994 the hedge was necessary because of a “small but real danger that reform in Russia might fail.”
Well, we are 17 years beyond that. While reform in Russia has been very rough and incomplete, it certainly did not turn into the worst-case scenario that Perry worried about.
The nuclear hedge is still around. Why?
Getty Images/Alex Wong
In the first years after the Soviet Union fell apart, Kenneth J. Fairfax sent back to the State Department a string of cables that caused people to sit up and notice. Fairfax, an officer in the environment, science and technology section of the United States Embassy in Moscow, reported in 1993 and 1994 that the Russian nuclear establishment was falling apart. Some of the worst conditions were at facilities that Russia considered civilian, but which held large quantities of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium. The materials were so poorly protected as to be up for grabs.
Quoting a Russian official in March, 1994, Fairfax wrote that under the old Soviet system, control of nuclear materials was essentially an administrative task, with "no physical control measures as are used in the U.S." Nor was there any commercial value to the material in Soviet times, and thus little danger of theft. But when the country imploded, so did this old system. "Now there are increasingly frequent reports of theft and diversion of material and a real need for a modern system of control," Fairfax warned.
As I described in The Dead Hand, alarm bells went off in Washington. The Fairfax cables were more than just good reporting. They helped policymakers in Washington spot a coming crisis -- the potentially dangerous leakage of nuclear materials from Russia -- and react to it. Eventually, the United States spent millions of dollars to help upgrade security across the former Soviet nuclear archipelago. For his work, Fairfax received the State Department's 1994 award for excellence in reporting on environment, science and technology issues by the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.